Pretoria - The Road Accident Fund (RAF) came under the spotlight yesterday when three Mpumalanga judges raised concerns about its ability to function, and asked how and when it would up its game.
The president of the Mpumalanga Division of the High Court, Judge Francis Legodi, his deputy, Judge Sheila Mphahlele, and Judge Brian Mashile peppered the legal counsel acting for the RAF, Cedric Puckrin SC, with questions such as what contingency plans were in place when it fired its panel of attorneys in 2020.
The judges made it clear that as things stood, the courts had to step in to ensure claims were dealt with adequately and to try to ensure that things ran smoothly.
They said the courts were inundated with claims against the RAF daily, while it seemed the entity was not doing its part in ensuring that the litigation process ran smoothly.
The full Bench application, in which the judges wanted answers from the RAF, was sparked by two cases which were, against the directives of the division of the court, settled at the last minute, as the trials were supposed to begin.
The judges wanted explanations from the RAF and its CEO Collins Letsoalo, among others, about why the court should not award a personal costs order against him in the cases.
At the start of yesterday’s hearing, Judge Legodi wanted questions answered, including who was responsible for late settlements and why the RAF was absent in the cases before court. The judges also wanted answers about the way forward in the many cases the courts were confronted
with but, due to the entity firing its panel of attorneys, was mostly no longer defending.
Puckrin said one of the problems was that the fired attorneys held on to case files, and there was nothing the RAF could do about it. But, he added, there were contingency plans in place, as the RAF’s corporate lawyers would take over the matters as a “stopgap measure” until it appointed state attorneys.
He said that by September, there should be 175 new state attorneys.
The judges persisted in their questioning about what systems were in place, as it seemed that nothing was in place as the RAF was absent in court, potentially causing it to lose a lot of money as it was not defending cases.
“Why would you resort to stopgap measures? Were there people to take over? What plans do you have in place? Must the courts meanwhile deal with these problems?” the judges kept asking.
Puckrin said he could not answer all the questions, as he was briefed to deal with only the two subject matters in the case.
But the judges made it clear they were concerned about the non-involvement of the RAF in claims.
They wanted to know for how long the courts would have to deal with the problems. They doubted there were contingency plans, as the courts continued to be faced with the issues.
They also doubted that the handful of corporate lawyers could deal with the fired panel of attorneys’ duties.
Puckrin said one of the big issues was that claims submitted to the RAF were incomplete. An audit done on May 31 this year showed that only 8.26% of claims were complete. But the judges said the RAF had the means to deal with the issues.
Puckrin said the RAF was not making excuses but was trying its best to turn things around.
“The RAF is acutely aware of its failures,” he said. He added that fingers should also be pointed in other directions, such as at legal practitioners who milked the RAF.
“We can criticise the RAF for days, but there is no solution if we don’t move forward,“ he said.
In answering one of the judge’s questions, about whether the RAF understood its mandate, Puckrin said it did, and its finances had improved over the past two years.
Advocate Brenton Geach, who appeared for one of the claimants, told the court that “it is clear” that appeals to the RAF over the years to observe its statutory duties and constitutional functions had fallen on deaf ears.
“The RAF is either incapable of, or disinterested in, serving individuals who are often among the most vulnerable members of society. Its failure to do so leads to the waste of huge sums in legal fees and expenses and opens the door to abuse of the system,” he argued.